Every magazine I open these days has an article about nannies. In the last two years, I’ve read about the good nanny, the thieving nanny, the shared nanny, the nanny from heaven and the one from hell. I love my nanny, I fear my nanny. Introducing the manny. Nanny, nanny, nanny.
The word makes my skin crawl. And I’m not alone. When I use it recently on the playground, Marcia, a babysitter, starts shaking her head like she just tasted something sour. She holds up her hand and says to me, “That word sets my teeth on edge. I can’t even stand to hear it said out loud.” Another sitter, Susan, who like me is from Trinidad, looks at me like I’ve forgotten my native tongue. “Are you crazy?” she wants to know, “Na- I can’t bring myself to say the word. Don’t you know what a nanny is?”
Of course I know. In Trinidad, “nanny” is slang for vagina.
When I was working as a caregiver, I chafed anytime I was referred to as that, which was often and almost always with a bit of smug satisfaction. In the early 1990s, I was a bona fide full-time, live-in, stroller-wielding New York nanny, familiar with slides and sprinklers from Union Square to Carl Schultz Park and familiar, too, with both the mommies and the momzillas. I did this work for about four years before making the decision to get off the nanny track and pursue my own version of the American dream – which didn’t include caring for other people’s children.
Now I’m a college lecturer and have my own daughter, Helen. We live in the heart of Breeder Brooklyn (which, according to my own unscientific study, is populated by more nannies than any other place on earth), and at times I feel like a double agent, playing a kind of social hopscotch between the other moms and the mostly West Indian women who mind children for a living. The two groups eye each other warily.
With my mom friends, I talk about retuning to work and husbands and second children and daycare versus nannies. With the caregivers, our talk is of moving back to the Caribbean, husbands, spoiled children and their even more spoiled parents, who antagonize their employees in myriad ways, including repeated use of the na-word. The two groups are so separate and in many ways, so distrustful of each other, that it’s not surprising that the parents don’t know that they’re referring to the women charged with the care of their children as sexual organs.
Or farm animals. Susan said to me, “Remember the old Sesame Street skit:
‘Nancy the nanny-goat nibbled on her nails?’ A nanny is a she-goat.” I
laughed when she said that, remembering the old mother goat admonishing Nancy
to not be a ninny and stop her nibbling, but I also heard the anger behind
You have to expect some bristling from women who are coming from places where “nannies”
and “rams” are words frequentlyused in conversations about livestock and animal husbandry.
And, in Trinidad,where almost half the population is of East Indian descent, “nani” is
the Hindi word used to address one’s maternal grandmother. Satirical
Calypso singers have had a field day playing up the word’s triple entendre
in song. In the Caribbean, the child minder is referred to as the sitter, the
domestic or the woman who watches the children. While this last may not be
particularly verbally succinct, it’s not humiliating, either.
To prove how taboo the word is, I went up to a few West Indian women in my
local playground and asked what they did for a living. Not one used the title “nanny” to
describe her job. Instead, they said “caregiver” or “babysitter.” Susan insisted
on being called a “childcare provider.” It’s
not that the job is looked down upon in the West Indian community. In fact,
many of these women get fair salaries, paid holidays and end-of-year bonuses.
They’ve helped put their children through school, saved up to buy homes,
and they regularly send cash to relatives in the Caribbean. It’s the
word that rankles.
There are many things West Indian sitters would like their employers to know: “You
have to leave some petty cash around for outing incidentals like ice cream
or pizza.” “Fifty dollars a week is not a sufficient raise for
a new baby.” “No, I do not want to come to your child’s birthday
party on my day off.” But the simplest request of all, and the easiest
to act on, is this: “Don’t call me nanny.”